Science Spotlight

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  • October 12, 2018

Trail cam photo of black bear in wooded area approaching barbed wire fence
Researchers built 90 hair-snare stations designed to pull a small hair sample from black bears that cross the snares.

Map with legend
The Warner Mountains Black Bear Project study area (blue boundary) and layout of hair-snare grids (yellow squares) in northeastern California. The upper-left inset shows the southernmost hair snare grid and layout of hair-snare locations (red circles). Density estimates and information on habitat from within the 10 grids will help researchers estimate overall black bear abundance across the entire study area.

California’s black bear population is healthy and growing, with an estimated 35,000 animals, up from an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 in 1982. But how do wildlife biologists determine these figures – and why are they important?

Deep in the Warner Mountains in Lassen and Modoc counties CDFW is just completing the first year of a study of black bears. The lead scientist, Steffen Peterson, explained that anecdotal evidence in recent years – including increased bear sightings by both field scientists and everyday citizens, as well as an increased number of requests for depredation permits due to bear-human conflicts – seemed to indicate that the population of black bears in the Warner Mountains was booming and this area would be ideal for scientific research.

According to Peterson, the two primary objectives of the Warner Mountains Black Bear Project are to estimate black bear abundance in the study area and to determine how black bears use the landscape. This kind of information on black bear demography and space use is essential for wildlife managers to make scientifically sound bear management decisions for this region of California.

CDFW is using a genetic capture-recapture method to estimate the population size. Usually, this involves physically capturing an animal, marking it in some way and releasing it. But this particular study achieves the same goal with non-invasive techniques – specifically by using hair snares, which cause relatively little stress or harm to the animals. Hair snares have been used on many furbearing species to determine presence, to calculate a minimum absolute count of individuals present, or to estimate total population size by collecting a DNA sample from individuals without physically capturing the animal. Unique repetitive sequences, known as microsatellites, within the DNA sample serve as individual identifiers, making it possible to know when and where each unique animal was present.

In addition, because the DNA located within roots of mammalian hair can identify species, sex, and individuality, this genetic technique is ideal for researchers to estimate abundance as well as obtain information on demographics and genetic diversity.

Peterson, a CDFW scientific aid and a Humboldt State University graduate student, and other researchers built 90 hair-snare stations distributed across 10 sampling grids that that are designed to pull a small hair sample from bears that cross the snares.

The contraption consists of two parallel strands of barbed wire stretched around a cluster of three or more trees, one about eight inches off the ground and the other about 20 inches off the ground. This forms a barbed-wire “corral” in which researchers place a pile of logs drizzled with fish oil. The oil acts as an attractant to black bears, who have both a finely attuned sense of smell and a profound love of fish. At two thirds of the hair-snare stations, researchers placed a trail-camera to help verify the effectiveness of the snares at capturing hair samples when a bear is present. The trail photos also provide demographic (cub-adult ratio) information on bears within the study area.

“The use of hair-snares to collect genetic data for abundance and density estimates has become the gold standard for American black bear,” said Peterson. “The hope is for the bear to cross between the two strands of barbed wire, although some of our video footage from the trail cameras shows bears crossing – even jumping, in some cases –  over the wire. Because bears are big, robust animals, for the most part they pay little mind to the barbs and typically cross them, leaving us a nice big clump of hair. Bears are the ideal critter for hair-snares in this way.”

Although Peterson stressed that it is much too soon in the study process to draw conclusions about the number of black bears living on the grid, initial results indicate that, at a bare minimum, black bears are certainly roaming throughout the study area.

During a 50-day hair collection period that took place this summer, black bears were detected in all of the grids created in the study area that encompasses roughly 600 square miles of high desert terrain; researchers collected 469 samples of hair in all at 57 of the 90 hair-snare locations.

“Long story short, we are pleased by the amount of detections observed during our data collection,” Peterson said. “Good detections will strengthen our ability to estimate density within each grid which will allow us to more reliably estimate abundance off the grid – i.e., the Warner Mountain study area as a whole.”

Peterson is now set to begin the DNA analysis phase on the samples collected. This will allow him to determine precisely how many individual bears left hair behind (bears often leave more than one sample at a snare location and some individuals are repeat visitors), as well as information on gender and habitat use, including the movement of bears across the study area.

Next summer, project staff will capture and collar 12 adult black bear with research collars, which will record hourly GPS locations of the bears as they move across the landscape, providing information on how they use the landscape, including seasonal habitat preferences and, during the winter hibernation period, where bears den.

“This information will greatly improve our knowledge of how bears use these high desert ecosystems, characteristic of the Great Basin, and guide future land management in this region,” Peterson said.

The project is expected to continue for another two to three years. ###

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Emily Monfort, a CDFW scientific aid, carefully removes black bear hair from barbed wire at a hair-snare location. The DNA from this clump of hair will be examined in the laboratory to determine the sex and genetic identity of the black bear that crossed this wire.  Photo credit Korrina Domingo (CDFW).

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • July 13, 2018

A man on a horse with a mule in tow, climbing rugged, mountainous, dry scrub-covered terrain
a man's hand laid flaat on sandy soil, next to a mountain lion track
A golden-coated mountain lion sits high on a large limb of an oak tree
Man wearing a hard hat and climbing gear, working his way up a tall pine tree, under a royal blue sky
A mountain lion crouches, well camouflaged by boulders and sandy soil under dead branches

It’s just before dawn in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in Mono County. It’s a cold clear morning, a good day to be out experiencing a still very much wild area of California. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologist Justin Dellinger and a Wildlife Services houndsman are preparing gear to go out looking for fresh mountain lion tracks in this vast landscape. With the help of a team of highly trained dogs, Dellinger and the tracker are focused on the ultimate goal: Capturing a mountain lion and outfitting it with a GPS collar for research purposes.

This tracking effort in Mono County is part of a larger project to estimate mountain lion population size statewide. It began in the southern Cascades and northern Sierra-Nevada Mountains in 2015, and since then CDFW has solely undertaken or collaborated on similar efforts in the north coast, Modoc plateau and here in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s tough work with long hours; trackers can spend days or even weeks in pursuit of lions. Yet tracking remains the gold standard method of gathering data in the mountain lion research world.

Notably, it takes both biologist and houndsman, each with a unique skill set, to make this team effort work. On this particular day, for example, Dellinger starts the ball rolling when he spots a fresh set of mountain lion tracks made the night before. The mark of the hind heelpad, measuring 52mm across, indicates that it’s a tom (male cat) heading southwest. The long stride suggests he’s traveling in a focused and determined manner – perhaps to secure a meal, locate a mate or confront another male trying to move in on his turf.

Dellinger radios the houndsman, who is astride a mule. The houndsman makes his way to the tracks with dogs in tow, where he assesses a wide variety of information – the time of day, wind speed and direction, topography, etc.

“The mental calculations (of the tracker) are rooted in decades of experience and know-how, but they’re still somewhat of an enigma to me,” Dellinger says. “But then again, houndsman feel likewise about the statistical calculations employed by biologists. It takes both of us, working together, to compile all the information and derive a solid population estimate.”

Over the next several days, the houndsman and the biologist follow the tom over miles of country, with the cat none the wiser about his pursuers. The team eventually catches up to the tom. The dogs masterfully trail him over boulders and around escarpments and tree him in a pinyon pine. The houndsman signals to Dellinger that the tom is treed. Dellinger then works his way into position to dart the animal. Success! Within an hour, the cat is asleep and Dellinger is able to affix a collar.

Yet despite the enormity of the overall effort, the day’s accomplishment is only one small step in the overall plan. Simply put, they’ll get a little rest and then wake up and try to do it all over again tomorrow.

As CDFW’s lead mountain lion biologist, Dellinger understands the need to study and understand Puma concolor only too well. “Lions are the apex predators across much of California, and apex predators can tell scientists a lot about the ecological wellbeing of a given landscape or ecosystem,” he explains. “If mountain lions are decreasing in an area, it’s likely that prey species are decreasing too. If mountain lions are exhibiting health issues, it’s likely that other animals in the ecosystem are experiencing similar issues.”

Because of those grants, this first comprehensive effort to collar lions around the state is now underway. It’s a huge and somewhat daunting task. California’s size and ecological diversity requires a divide-and-conquer approach, meaning that studies can only be conducted in one area at a time. Together, those “slices” of data will add up to a statewide picture. 

Getting the collar on the cat might be the most important part, but all of the data Dellinger collects on this trip will be useful. He’ll be able to compare tracks and remote game camera photos with GPS collar data to derive a minimum count of mountain lions in the area. For now, this is the best way of counting mountain lions in the western United States. In the future, CDFW may grow to rely on data gathering techniques that are more cost- and time-effective than tracking, and use more common skill sets. One possible alternative is developing thanks to the rapid advance of using genetics to monitor wildlife species without having to handle the animals. Scat samples can be collected and analyzed to provide a genetic fingerprint of the animal that deposited them. In theory, if enough lion scat is collected over a large enough area, CDFW can estimate the number of lions in the area.

But scat analysis is still a fairly new way of doing things, and until techniques can be tested, compared and perfected, CDFW will continue to employ the tracking “gold-standard.” The newer methods can be compared to the old, and it’s possible that the newer methods will outperform (i.e., be cheaper and just as reliable) the older methods in some areas but not other areas.

CDFW sees this statewide effort as a first step in monitoring and conserving the elusive, ecologically important mountain lion long-term in California. The project is still in its early stages and will likely continue for another six years or so. Dellinger is enthusiastically looking forward to the work. “It’s really cool because no other state has attempted such a comprehensive population assessment of lions … and  no other western state is as ecologically diverse as California,” he says. “Doing something this comprehensive requires working in a lot of very unique areas. It’s never going to be boring.”

Photos courtesy of Justin Dellinger

Categories: General
  • May 17, 2018

Two bighorn sheep laying with blinders on inside enclosed area
These pregnant females will bolster the population of a newly established herd as well as provide an infusion of fresh genetic material to helps ensure their new herd’s health and long-term survival.

Bighorn sheep with blue ear tag and collar
Outfitted with an ear tag and two tracking collars, this ram awaits delivery to a new herd where it’s hoped he will infuse the population with fresh genetics

Two men in helmets bending over a bighorn sheep with blinders on wrapped in large orange sling with white pickup trucks and two men in background
Among the goals of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Plan is the establishment of 12 viable herds across their historic range. CDFW’s capture and relocation efforts over the years have helped establish 14 herds today across 150 miles of their historic range.

Three bighorn sheep on desert landscape ground wrapped in large orange slings while to men in helmets look over them and several people stand in the background
These Eastern Sierra bighorn sheep are being prepared for their flight to a new home and new herds.

Seven animals.

Can just seven Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep really make much of an impact on the species’ future?

CDFW scientists believe so, which is why they came away pleased with the results of their annual spring helicopter capture this past March. Limited to three days of work due to strong winds and bad weather, the effort resulted in the capturing, collaring and relocation of seven sheep to new herds high in the Eastern Sierra.

Although the final chapters have yet to be written, the saga surrounding the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, one of the rarest large mammals in North America, is shaping up to be a 21st century wildlife success story.

A unique subspecies found only in the Sierra Nevada, historic populations numbered in the thousands. Their steep population decline began in the 1800s as a result of competition from livestock grazing, unregulated hunting and the transmission of disease from domestic sheep. Drought and predation further hammered their numbers, which dwindled to about 100 animals in just three herds by the mid-1990s. State and federal officials declared them endangered in 1999.

Today, less than 20 years removed from those dramatic listings, there are 14 different Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep herds spread across 150 miles of the iconic mountain range. About 600 bighorn sheep are now eking out a living atop the Sierra’s highest peaks. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are present once again inside Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park after a 100-year absence.

CDFW’s role is itself unique as a state agency tasked with leading the recovery of a federally listed endangered species. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are recolonizing their historic range – with a major assist from CDFW’s twice-yearly captures, collaring and strategic “translocations.”

This spring, three males and four pregnant females were captured from two established herds and translocated to two newly reintroduced herds – one along their western range inside Sequoia National Park and another herd in Inyo County at the southernmost extent of their range.

“Whenever we start these new herds, we like to move a minimum of 20 females as well as additional rams over time,” explained Tom Stephenson, a CDFW senior environmental scientist based in Bishop and the leader of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program. “At that point, we feel the population has enough animals to begin growing at a high enough rate and also has sufficient genetic diversity.”

Before the animals are relocated, a CDFW team records their vital statistics. Ultrasound machines are used to measure body condition and determine pregnancy status. The animals are outfitted with identifying jewelry – color-coded ear tags, VHF and GPS collars that allow biologists to identify them and track their movements for years in some cases.

All the high-tech, intensive monitoring has paid dividends with new appreciation and understanding. Once believed to always migrate to lower elevations in the winter, CDFW scientists have learned that many sheep ride out the Sierra Nevada’s inhospitable winters at 11,000- to 14,000-foot elevations.

“They are really tough,” Stephenson said. “But they’re able to do that because they put on large amounts of body fat in the summer when they’re on quality habitat. They are essentially hibernating standing up in the alpine. They’ve got an environment up there that is wind-scoured so they can find some food. They’re not having to move around much, and they’re relatively free from predators when they’re up in those altitudes in the winter time.”

Not every sheep captured is relocated.

Helicopter crews this spring attempted unsuccessfully to capture rams in the northernmost part of their range, collar them and return them to their same herds. CDFW biologists are keeping close tabs on the Mount Warren Herd near Lee Vining in Mono County in particular and its proximity to domestic sheep grazing on public land. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are disease-free and CDFW biologists want to keep them that way.

While populations have met or exceeded some recovery goals, eliminating disease – or the risk of disease – remains a significant benchmark and key to delisting or down-listing the species from endangered status.<

“There are a lot of bighorn sheep populations throughout the West that continue to struggle with disease,” Stephenson said. “So we’ve worked really hard with public land managers as well as private individuals in the Eastern Sierra to try and ensure our bighorn sheep don’t come into contact with domestic sheep.”

CDFW photos courtesy of Andrew Di Salvo. Top Photo: A helicopter crew delivers four bighorn sheep to CDFW's base camp where vital statistics were recorded, blood was taken, and the sheep were outfitted with identifying ear tags and tracking collars.

Categories: Wildlife Research